Waterloo East Theatre, London – until 25 November 2018
John, Jumbo, Peggy, Mac, Spider… the names above the dressing room hooks are a simple but effective reminder that behind wartime statistics are countless lives that have been ended. Whether the hundreds of thousands of total British casualties of World War One, or the 42 men of the Clapton Orient football team who volunteered en masse for the effort, it can be hard – overwhelming even – to remember that each one was an individual.
It is a thought that is threaded throughout the entirety of Michael Head’s play The Greater Game based on Stephen Jenkins’ book They Took The Lead. It drills down to seven key members of that football squad (now known as Leyton Orient) and deeper yet to the intense friendship between the lads whose playing field moves from boyhood kickarounds in the North-East, to professional success in East London, to brutal conflict at the Somme.
Head works hard to honour each man, to recognise that they all have their own story within the greater game of the play and emotionally, this proves satisfying. The ensemble all get their chance to shine and the multiple effects of war get to be explored – not just death but shell-shock, survivor guilt, traumatic injury, what we now recognise as PTSD. And through the device of death notices being sent home and read aloud, those names are rubbed off one by one, replaced with a photograph as a tribute – simple but powerfully effective.
Dramatically, it’s a little less clean as Head’s structure of multiple short scenes leaves the play feeling a little fractured. And the focus on these individual stories does mean we don’t really get a sense of the cumulative impact on the club of losing so many of its personnel, just the weight of the world bearing down ever heavily on the shoulders of Michael Greco’s deeply compassionate gaffer. Adam Morley’s production also benefits from some astute casting.
Chief among them is Jack Harding who brings a heartfelt, aching depth to Spider, captain on the field and off, a man who becomes hollowed out by the responsibilities he has to bear. And James Phelps (somewhat less ginger than in Harry Potter) and Steven Bush find an appealing gaucheness in two young men whose platonic affection runs incredibly deep. And the inadequacies of traditional masculinity in dealing with such emotion is another theme that emerges beautifully – a quickly snatched hug becomes one of the play’s enduring images. A fitting tribute.